Trademark law is a minefield and a nightmare, as Australian manufacturers of ugg boots discovered in the late ‘90s.
Ugg boots (thought to be short for ‘ugly boots’) have been around in Australia and New Zealand since at least the early 1900s and everyone was happy. I bought my first pair in the late ‘60s, I remember. They weren’t as fancy as they are now, but oh, the blissful warmth!
But in the 1970s, a couple of Australian surfers took their boots to the US, where they won the hearts of Californian surfers. All good so far. But in 1996, the American company Deckers Outdoor Corporation bought the Australians out, registered the trademarks for ‘UGG’ in the US and 25 foreign countries and began sending cease and desist letter to Australian manufactures using the name ‘ugg’ for their boots.
Now Australians might be a bit dozy in the big wide world of cut-throat commerce, but we do like a fair go, and this wasn’t it. Uggs had been ours forever and we weren’t giving them up without a fight. So Australian ugg boot manufacturers joined forces as The Australian Sheepskin Association to fight the mighty giant that is Deckers, and in 2006 they won, on the basis that in Aus and NZ, ‘ugg’ is a generic term and therefore not subject to trademark restrictions.
It did take Deckers four years to pay the costs awarded against them, and in other countries, the battle to use the word ‘ugg’ is still ongoing, but it’s good to know that even in this world where big and rich rules, David can still defeat Goliath occasionally.